Amazon: Where utilitarian products deliver stellar results.

In the era of e-commerce, year after year the growth and financial success of Amazon continues to be noteworthy — seemingly impervious to economic downturns or volatility.

What’s the secret sauce?

The answer is interesting. It isn’t that Amazon dominates any particular product category. Rather, it’s the kind of product — “utilitarian” — that cuts across many categories.

From cellar to stellar: Amazon shares’ incredible run.

Utilitarian products tend to be practical, generally inexpensive or downright cheap … and typically carry little risk associated with making a regretful purchase choice. They aren’t the type of products that inspire brand affinity, and they typically don’t require very much in the way of pre-purchase research on the part of buyers.

Moreover, on Amazon these utilitarian products have an equally utilitarian path to purchase. Purchase “journeys” — such as they are — are straightforward. Often they begin and end on Amazon’s site, with few or no deviations to conduct research or compare brands.

This is where Amazon excels — in nudging shoppers down the sales funnel while giving them no reason to go away from the website. Amazon makes the purchase steps quick, effortless and satisfying — and probably easier to complete than anyplace else online. If there is a more elegant purchase procedure out there in cyberspace, I have yet to find it.

And if some shoppers might wish to do a little more product evaluation, Amazon makes that possible as well, with consumer reviews offered right on the site for quick and easy evaluation and validation.

Of course, there are certainly product categories that aren’t particularly “utilitarian” in nature, and this is where Amazon’s model is a little less effective. A category such as women’s apparel is more brand-specific and brand-driven, and the purchase journeys in that realm are typically more longer, more circuitous, and more discovery-focused.

But Amazon has effectively carved out a niche in so-called “basic” products to the degree that it has become the “go-to” destination for thousands of products that are “common” in every sense of the word — resulting in some very uncommon business and financial results for the company.

Cookie-blocking is having a big impact on ad revenues … now what?

When Google feels the need to go public about the state of the current ad revenue ecosystem, you know something’s up.

And “what’s up” is actually “what’s down.” According to a new study by Google, digital publishers are losing more than half of their potential ad revenue, on average, when readers set their web browser preferences to block cookies – those data files used to track the online activity of Internet users.

The impact of cookie-blocking is even bigger on news publishers, which are foregoing ad revenues of around 62%, according to the Google study.

The way Google conducted its investigation was to run a 4-month test among ~500 global publishers (May to August 2019). Google disabled cookies on a randomly selected part of each publisher’s traffic, which enabled it to compare results with and without the cookie-blocking functionality employed.

It’s only natural that Google would be keen to understand the revenue impact of cookie-blocking. Despite its best efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, continues to rely heavily on ad revenues – to the tune of more than 85% of its entire business volume.

While that percent is down a little from the 90%+ figures of 5 or 10 years ago, in spite of diversifying into cloud computing and hardware such as mobile phones, the dizzyingly high percentage of Google revenues coming from ad sales hasn’t budged at all in more recent times.

And yet … even with all the cookie-blocking activity that’s now going on, it’s likely that this isn’t the biggest threat to Google’s business model. That distinction would go to governmental regulatory agencies and lawmakers – the people who are cracking down on the sharing of consumer data that underpins the rationale of media sales.

The regulatory pressures are biggest in Europe, but consumer privacy concerns are driving similar efforts in North America as well.

Figuring that a multipronged effort makes sense in order to counteract these trends, this week Google aired a proposal to give online users more control over how their data is being used in digital advertising, and seeking comments and feedback from interest parties.

On a parallel track, it has also initiated a project dubbed “Privacy Sandbox” to give publishers, advertisers, technology firms and web developers a vehicle to share proposals that will, in the words of Google, “protect consumer privacy while supporting the digital ad marketplace.”

Well, readers – what do you think? Do these initiatives have the potential to change the ecosystem to something more positive and actually achieve their objectives?  Or is this just another “fool’s errand” where attractive-sounding platitudes sufficiently (or insufficiently) mask a dimmer reality?

Amazon’s Spark that Fizzled …

Amazon Spark: Less like a sizzle … more like a fizzle.

It’s now been more than nine months since Amazon launched its social media platform Spark … and so far, it’s hardly sizzled.

In fact, it’s made barely a ripple in the market.

There are plenty of people who contend that the last thing the world needs is yet another social network. But others would like to see new alternatives to the recently beleaguered Facebook platform.

As for its trajectory, it looks as if Spark is following the former rather than the latter path. The question is, “Why?”

Very likely, the answer lies in Spark’s questionable underlying raison d’etre.  Essentially, Spark is a social feed of photos and other images. That makes it similar to Instagram … sort of.

One difference between the two platforms is that Spark is open to exclusively to Amazon Prime members.  That limits the potential number of Spark users pretty severely, right from the get-go.  [It’s true that non-members can view Spark feeds — but they can’t post their own content. And what’s a social platform if you cannot interact with it?  It isn’t one.]

Another difference with Instagram may be even more of a fundamental problem. The rationale for Spark is to focus on products that Amazon sells.  Spark is directly “shoppable,” which differentiates it from Instagram and other social networks.  It also makes it less like a true social network and more like a garden-variety e-commerce site.

In other words, rather than being an interesting and engaging social platform, Spark is boring. Informative – but boring.

It isn’t that Amazon/Spark allows brands themselves to post content there; posting privileges are granted only to people it dubs “enthusiasts” or “onsite associates.” Brands must seek out “regular people” [sic] who are members of Amazon Prime to post content on their behalf about their products.

And I’m sure that’s happening – along with varying levels and forms of compensation flowing to these supposed “enthusiasts” in return for the product plugs. But can anyone imagine less compelling content than what results from this kind of commercialized “AstroTurfing”?  No wonder people are ignoring this social media platform.

Andrew Sandoval, a group director for media planning agency The Media Kitchen, summarizes Spark’s predicament by noting that lifestyle-focused people tend congregate on Instagram — a place that shows people living their lives through products. By contrast, “Amazon Spark is mostly just talking about your products, which is the hard-sell.  Ultimately, the e-commerce social experience is a little too far from the social experience,” Sandoval opines.

Have you interfaced with Spark since its July 2017 launch? If so, do you see redeeming qualities about the platform that the rest of us might be missing?  Please share your comments with other readers.

Fewer brands are engaging in programmatic online advertising in 2017.

How come we are not surprised?

The persistent “drip-drip-drip” of brand safety concerns with programmatic advertising – and the heightened perception that online advertising has been showing up in the most unseemly of places — has finally caught up with the once-steady growth of economically priced programmatic advertising versus higher-priced digital formats such as native advertising and video advertising.

In fact, ad tracking firm MediaRadar is now reporting that the number of major brands running programmatic ads through the first nine months of 2017 has actually dropped compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline isn’t huge – 2% to be precise. But growing reports that leading brands’ ads have been mistakenly appearing next to ISIS or neo-Nazi content on YouTube and in other places on the web has shaken advertisers’ faith in programmatic platforms to be able to prevent such embarrassing actions from occurring.

For Procter & Gamble, for instance, it has meant that the number of product brands the company has shifted away from programmatic advertising and over to higher-priced formats jumped from 49 to 62 brands over the course of 2017.

For Unilever, the shift has been even greater – going from 25 product brands at the beginning of the year to 53 by the end of July.

The “flight to safety” by these and other brand leaders is easy to understand. Because they can be controlled, direct ad sales are viewed as far more brand-safe compared programmatic and other automated ad buy programs.

In the past, the substantial price differential between the two options was enough to convince many brands that the rewards of “going programmatic” outweighed the inherent risks.  No longer.

What this also means is that advertisers are looking at even more diverse media formats in an effort to find alternatives to programmatic advertising that can accomplish their marketing objectives without the attendant risks (and headaches).

We’ll see how that goes.

Facebook attempts to shake the “Fakebook” mantle.

There are a growing number of reasons why more marketers these days are referring to the largest social media platform as “Fakebook.”

Back last year, it came to light that Facebook’s video view volumes were being significantly overstated – and the outcry was big enough that the famously tightly controlled social platform finally agreed to submit its metrics reporting to outside oversight.

To be sure, that decision was “helped along” by certain big brands threatening to significantly cut back their Facebook advertising or cease it altogether.

Now comes another interesting wrinkle. According to Facebook’s statistics, the social network claims it can reach millions of Americans across several important age demographics, as follows:

  • 18-24 year-olds: ~41 million people
  • 25-34 year-olds: ~60 million people
  • 35-49 year-olds: ~61 million people

There’s one slight problem with these stats:  U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that the total number of people living in the United States falling in the 18-49 age grouping is 137 million.

That’s a substantially lower figure than the 162 million people counted by Facebook – 25 million (18%) smaller, to be precise.

What could be the reason(s) for the overcount? As reported by Business Insider journalist Alex Heath, a Facebook spokesperson has attributed the “over-counting” to foreign tourists engaging with Facebook’s platform while they’re in the United States.

That seems like a pretty lame explanation – particularly since U.S. tourism outside the country is a reciprocal activity that likely cancels out foreign tourism.

There’s also the fact that there are multiple Facebook accounts maintained by some people. But it stretches credulity to think that multiple accounts explain more than a small portion of the differential.

Facebook rightly points out that its audience reach stats are designed to estimate how many people in a given geographic area are eligible to see an ad that a business might choose to run, and that this projected reach has no bearing on the actual delivery and billing of ads in a campaign.

In other words, the advertising would be reaching “real” people in any case.

Still, such discrepancies aren’t good to have in an environment where many marketers already believe that social media advertising promises more than it actually delivers.  After all, “reality check” information like this is just a click away in cyberspace …

Today’s Most Expensive Keywords in Search Engine Marketing

I’ve blogged before about the most expensive keywords in search engine marketing. Back in 2009, it was “mesothelioma.”

Of course, that was eight years and a lifetime ago in the world of cyberspace. In the meantime, asbestos poisoning has become a much less lucrative target of ambulance-chasing attorneys looking for multi-million dollar court settlements.

Today, we have a different set of “super-competitive” keyword terms vying for the notoriety of being the “most expensive” ones out there.  And while none of them are flirting with the $100 per-click pricing that mesothelioma once commanded, the pricing is still pretty stratospheric.

According to recent research conducted by online advertising software services provider WordStream, the most expensive keyword categories in Google AdWords today are these:

  • “Business services”: $58.64 average cost-per-click
  • “Bail bonds”: $58.48
  • “Casino”: $55.48
  • “Lawyer”: $54.86
  • “Asset management”: $49.86

Generally, the reasons behind these terms and other terms being so expensive is the dynamic of the “immediacy” of the needs or challenges people are looking to solve.

Indeed, other terms that have high-end pricing include such ones as “plumber,” “termites,” and “emergency room near me.”

Amusingly, one of the most expensive keywords on Google AdWords is … “Google” itself.  That term ranks 25th on the list of the most expensive keywords.

[To see the complete listing of the 25 most expensive keywords found in WordStream’s research, click here.]

WordStream also conducted some interesting ancillary research during the same study. It analyzed the best-performing ads copy/content associated with the most expensive key words to determine which words were the most successful in driving clickthroughs.

Running this textual analysis found that the most lucrative calls-to-action included ad copy that contained the following terms:

    • Build
    • Buy
    • Click
    • Discover
    • Get
    • Learn
    • Show
    • Sign up
    • Try

Are there keyword terms in your own business category or industry that you feel are way overpriced in relation to their value they deliver for the promotional dollar? If so, which ones?

Why are online map locations so sucky so often?

How many times have you noticed location data on Google Maps and other online mapping services that are out-of-date or just plain wrong? I encounter it quite often.

It hits close to home, too. While most of my company’s clients don’t usually have reason to visit our company’s office (because they’re from out of state or otherwise situated pretty far away from our location in Chestertown, MD), for the longest while Google Maps’s pin for our company pointed viewers to … a stretch of weeds in an empty lot.

It turns out, the situation isn’t uncommon. Recently, the Wawa gas-and-food chain hired an outside firm to verify its location data on Google, Facebook and Foursquare.  What Wawa found was that some 2,000 address entries had been created by users, including duplicate entries and ones with incorrect information.

Unlike a company like mine which doesn’t rely on foot traffic for business, for a company like Wawa, that’s the lifeblood of its operations. As such, Wawa is a high-volume advertiser with numerous campaigns and promotions going at once — including ones on crowdsourced driving and traffic apps like Google’s Waze.

With so much misleading location data swirling around, the last thing a company needs to see is a scathing review appearing on social media because someone was left staring at a patch of weeds in an empty lot instead being able to redeem a new digital coupon for a gourmet cookie or whatever.

Problems with incorrect mapping don’t happen just because of user-generated bad data, either. As in my own company’s case, the address information can be completely accurate – and yet somehow the map pin associated with it is misplaced.

Companies such as MomentFeed and Ignite Technologies have been established whose purpose is to identify and clean up bad map data such as this. It can’t be a one-and-done effort, either; most companies find that it’s yet another task that needs continuing attention – much like e-mail database list hygiene activities.

Perhaps the worst online map data clanger I’ve read about was a retail store whose pin location placed it 800 miles east of the New Jersey coastline in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  What’s the most spectacular mapping fail you’ve come across personally?